Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo needs to improve his free throw shooting

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 3: Giannis Antetokounmpo
DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 3: Giannis Antetokounmpo /

A simple step to the next level for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks could come from simply making more free throws.

In spite of major improvements from the free throw line in his first four seasons in the NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo is still prone to bouts of inconsistency from 15 feet.

This was painfully evident in the fourth quarter of what proved to be a decisive Game 6 loss to the Toronto Raptors in April, as Antetokounmpo used every fiber of his being to will the Bucks back into that game, only to leave more than a handful of free points at the line.

Having achieved a career-high success rate of 77 percent in the regular season, Antetokounmpo only shot 54.3 percent from the line in the playoffs, and made only 3-7 in that heartbreaking final 12 minutes of Game 6.

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Much like the rest of Antetokounmpo’s shooting, it’s clear that the Greek Freak is capable of making free throws at a high rate, it’s just a matter of him reaching a point where he’s consistent regardless of the pressures of the situation.

As our own Ti Windisch wrote about recently, Antetokounmpo is already starting to get to the free throw line more regularly, and more and more superstar calls going his way seems like an inevitability. As such, free throws are going to become an even more central element of Giannis’ game, and he needs to establish an even greater comfort level at the stripe.

Back in May, ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh took a deep dive into LeBron James‘ free throw woes, and found James’ tendency to change up his routine to be a notable and unusual factor. Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy went further in illustrating just how rare those kind of changes can be.

"“When it comes to free throw shooters, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy has seen it all. Since joining the Heat as an assistant in 1996, he’s coached some of the best at the free throw line, like J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson, and some of the more, um, infamous ones, like Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond.Van Gundy says it’s extremely rare for NBA players to change their routine. You could watch 10 players all year long, he notes, and they won’t change a thing. For the typical player, free throw alterations almost never happen. ‘Once or twice a career, maybe,’ Van Gundy says. ‘Bad shooters, obviously more.'”"

In many ways, analyzing a player’s routine is the most obvious place to start in assessing their success or lack thereof at the line. A free throw is a quick and simple motion for a pro player, and compared to field goal attempts within a game, it sets up perfectly for success as the player sets his feet and doesn’t have to worry about close-outs or contests.

For Giannis, the routine has long been an area of concern, though.

Antetokounmpo is known throughout the league for having one of the slowest free throw routines around, and even got called for a rare 10-second violation in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers last December.

Eric Nehm wrote a piece for Milwaukee Magazine in March of 2016, detailing how Giannis had shortened his routine following a close call on a violation in a game against the Blazers (again) led to a call from the league office.

As Giannis explained about his changes at that time:

"“Coach [Kidd] has been helping me whenever I go back at night to shoot or after practice when I shoot my free throws.They’ve been helping me out on how to adjust myself and how to change my routine to be as comfortable as I can. So, I think moving forward, I’ll feel more comfortable.”"

Even if Giannis’ routine is quicker than it used to be, it’s still nowhere near as strict as those of many of the league’s best shooters at the line. Antetokounmpo certainly has recurring elements or apparent preferences when he steps to the line, but the routine is never identical.

Giannis will always take exaggerated deep breaths upon receiving the ball from the official, and then he will always deliberately bounce the ball before entering into his shooting motion. How often he does either of those things varies, though.

Take the video above from the opening minutes of that Game 6 against Toronto as just one example. Giannis starts off by draining his first free throw following three deep breaths and six bounces, only to immediately follow it up by bouncing one off the front of the rim following two deep breaths and five bounces.

To the average person, these differences are insignificant, but for an NBA player the aim is to build up the muscle memory so that the process feels almost automatic regardless of the stakes. The more familiar the routine is, the more confident the player should feel of replicating the results from the practice facility or the regular season when the bright lights of the playoffs are shining.

As that game progressed, Giannis’ routine continued to change, and the whole process looked more labored as Antetokounmpo, understandably, wrestled with exhaustion.

While the focus for many settles on what Giannis could be if he added a jump shot, a much more immediately attainable goal could be bringing his free throw shooting up to above 80 percent. For Antetokounmpo, that could be as simple as building a routine he’s comfortable with, and then ensuring he repeats it every time.

Next: Milwaukee Bucks: Building a contender in Milwaukee emphasized by Wisconsin Herd GM, head coach

Giannis is already one of the NBA’s very best players. Now, it’s up to him to find the marginal improvements that can bring him and his team to even loftier heights.